Discovering Contemporary Classical Music

In June 2014 the BBC released a list of 10 pieces to introduce children to classical music. These were:

  1. John Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine
  2. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (1st movement)
  3. Britten: “Storm” Interlude from Peter Grimes
  4. Grieg: In the Hall of the Mountain King (from Peer Gynt)
  5. Handel: Zadok the Priest
  6. Holst: Mars (from The Planets)
  7. Mozart: Horn Concerto No. 4 (3rd movement)
  8. Mussorgsky: A Night on the Bare Mountain
  9. Stravinsky: The Firebird ­ suite (1911) (Finale)
  10. Anna Meredith: Connect It

This is a fantastic list for an introduction. The pieces are diverse and recognisable and don’t stop after the early 20th-century.

This list was released shortly after I was asked by a composition student what contemporary classical music he should have listened to. I should have had a ready answer to this but it is a larger question than can be answered in the last 30 seconds of a seminar as the next group are walking in. I gave a very confused and eclectic mix and then pointed him towards Alex Ross’ ‘The Rest Is Noise’.

Well I have vowed to be more prepared in the future and, inspired by the BBC’s list, I have created a list of 5 pieces that can act as a gateway to contemporary classical music.

Obviously this is not an exhaustive list. All pieces featured are from late 20th-century onwards and will not replicate any pieces from the BBC list.
As this is an introduction to the field these may not be the most challenging pieces written within the time period. The aim is for the listener to want to hear more, and not to run for the hills screaming.
I have not included in depth explanations of each chosen work but will happily point people towards the right information.

Philip Glass – Symphony No.4 ‘Heroes’
Glass’ second symphony based on a David Bowie album; written to acknowledge being acknowledged as a major influence on Bowie’s work.

Anna Meredith – Axeman
A face-melting bassoon solo.

Louis Andriessen – Hout
A canonic work where the ensemble play like one instrument.

Krzysztof Penderecki – Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima
A challenging piece which represents and laments a catastrophic event.

Alvin Lucier – I Am Sitting In A Room
This is the piece that got me into contemporary classical music, thanks to Paul Morley’s ‘Words and Music’. Voice and tape loop played repeatedly until the voice disappears and music develops.

How does this fare as an introduction?
If new to contemporary classical music did this make you want to listen to more? Let me know…

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